Was Trump the Worst President? Not on This List

There’s a new edition of C-SPAN’s historical presidential rankings, with the headline, I suppose, that the experts involved — academic and popular historians, with a couple of political scientists and some others thrown in — rank Donald Trump 41st of the 44 presidents. (Joe Biden is not included; Grover Cleveland, the only president to serve nonconsecutive terms, counts once in this exercise.) That’s higher than I would rank him, although the bottom three in this survey,  Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan, are all legitimate contenders for the title of worst president in American history.

Beyond Trump, there’s nothing notable about this particular survey. John Kennedy, at #8, continues to be ranked improbably high. Ulysses Grant, #16, continues to climb from where he was unjustly placed during the 20th century, and Woodrow Wilson continues to lose ground, to the 13th spot, as fewer and fewer experts consider him great. Gerald Ford (28) is underrated; Jimmy Carter (26) is overrated. The exercise, I should point out, is at best a moderately fun diversion that may inspire people to learn more history and more about how the U.S. government works. At worst? It’s another way of reinforcing an excessively presidency-centric view of U.S. history and government. No one should take it too seriously.

But it’s not a bad way to raise questions about the presidency. The C-SPAN version asks experts to rate presidents on 10 aspects of the job, including public persuasion, crisis leadership, administrative skills and moral authority. What strikes me about the categories, especially in the light of the last few presidents, is the importance of one category that they do not include: managing the party coalition.

Some of that may be included in other categories; for example, especially in eras of partisan polarization, “relations with Congress” overlaps with party leadership. But it’s really something different.

One reason it’s so important is because it has a lot to do with what happens after a president leaves office. In a president’s final years in the White House, we talk a lot about legacy in terms of policies enacted, but a president’s real legacy is often about which groups have gained influence within the party and which have lost, and about the governing personnel whose careers have advanced during the presidency.

Failure in this sense can be seen for example in the presidency of Jimmy Carter, who left his party relatively unprepared to govern in the future, with catastrophic effects on Bill Clinton’s first years in office. Clinton actually went out of his way to avoid hiring people from the Carter White House for his administration. But Barack Obama filled his administration with Clinton personnel, and Joe Biden has done the same with Obama personnel, allowing both presidents to hit the ground running.

It’s more than just personnel. Ronald Reagan strengthened the conservative movement, making subsequent Republican presidents, Congresses and state governments more aligned with conservative policy preferences. Clinton and Obama empowered women and previously marginalized ethnic groups, helping produce a more diverse party during Biden’s presidency. It works the other way, too; George H.W. Bush’s indifference to the party helped fuel the rise of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the tactical radicalism (and worse) that eventually eclipsed policy-oriented conservatism. Trump seems to have finished that job.

Of course, as with any other assessment of presidents, it’s important to remember that they are hardly all-powerful when it comes to the party; parties constrain presidents at least as much as presidents lead their parties. And the overall political context matters, too.

But a president who actively tries to influence the party has plenty of ability to do so, whether through personnel decisions or by steering resources to some groups and away from others. And whether, and how, they do that, can be one of the most important things that a president does in office.

1. Rick Hasen at the nifty, redesigned and invaluable Election Law Blog on two big Supreme Court decisions expected Thursday.

2. Alvin B. Tillery Jr. on the Founders and critical race theory.

3. Matt Grossmann talks with Jon Kingzette and Jan Voelkel about partisan polarization and shared values.

5. Spencer Ackerman on Donald Rumsfeld.

6. George Packer on Rumsfeld.

7. Julian Sanchez on reforming counterterrorism investigations under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

8. And Michelle Cottle on flattering Trump.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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